The Last of the Anarchists: A working-class hero passes away.
By Paul Berman
There used to be many thousands of Italian-speaking anarchists in America – people from Sicily or southern Italy who came to America, worked in blue-collar trades, and read newspapers with names like Subversive Chronicle, The Call of the Refractory Ones, and The Hammer (except the names were in Italian). The Italian anarchists played a notably impassioned role in the American labor movement in the 1910s, and in the 1920s, two of them, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, became still more notable as victims of American injustice. That was pretty much the high point for Italian-speaking anarchism in America.
Still other people favored community-building. Isca participated in two such colonies. One of them, in Stelton, N.J., contained a famous school run on nonauthoritarian principles and was celebrated for its artistic spirit. The other, in Mohegan, N.Y., was more modest. Both the colonies were pleasant enough, if considered as working-class suburbs for people with an imaginative sense of how to live; but neither colony was in the slightest bit subversive. Then came World War II, and Isca and the anarchists had to choose between upholding their revolutionary intransigence or supporting the United States in the war – and he and probably a good half of the anarchist movement, the people around the anarcho-syndicalist theoretician Rudolf Rocker, came out for the war, which was sensible of them. But in that way the anarchists demoted their tiny revolutionary movement to a philosophical current, even if they stoutly denied doing anything of the sort.
In 1945, Isca helped found the Libertarian Book Club, which for the last half-century has been the most stable of the anarchist organizations in New York. (The word “libertarian” began as a left-wing synonym for “anarchist,” and was taken over by the right-wing free-marketers of the Libertarian Party only in recent decades.) The club held lectures in the hall of a Jewish social-democratic fraternal order, the Workmen’s Circle, and in the 1970s, when I was a student, I used to attend. Sometimes I was invited to speak. The room was full of elderly Wobblies and their wives (or “companions,” to use the anarchist term), retired sailors, machinists, typographers, veterans of the Russian Revolution of 1917, and heroes of the Spanish anarchist revolution of the 1930s. I had never addressed a more wonderful audience. And of those people, no one was more attentive or interested than Valerio Isca.
I visited him at his home – he lived in a cooperative put up by the garment workers’ union in Manhattan – and I was astonished by his book collection. Isca was a champion of the libertarian socialist ethics of Peter Kropotkin, but his fondest possession turned out to be a shelf full of books by Henry D. Thoreau. From those two thinkers, Kropotkin and Thoreau, he drew his approach to life: dignified, independent, a little truculent maybe, full of animus against bosses and priests, but also full of love for learning, for his fellow workers – and for the woods.
Paul Avrich, the great historian of American anarchism, has written a fascinating and invaluable book called Anarchist Voices, which contains interviews with 180 of the old-fashioned anarchists, Italian-speaking and otherwise – most of them gone now. Leafing through that book, I come across virtually the entire audience that used to hear my lectures at the Libertarian Book Club. And in Avrich’s pages I come across my old friend who loved Thoreau.
Isca died in 1996
Paul Berman is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias: The Political Journey of the Generation of 1968. From Slate.com